Ange Postecoglou won’t be the only Aussie on the Greek Islands, but unlike the other island hoppers, he won’t be moving far from his sunbed.
By the time he walked out of the Celtic Park office, four hours after the final whistle, he was spent, looking forward to his first break in 16 months.
This was no ordinary 16 months. There was the rollercoaster of uncertainty about getting a European job and exiting Yokohama F. Marinos, before an almighty rebuild of a famous club that was a shadow of its former self.
The Celtic managerial post is not a job, it’s all consuming. And Postecoglou gave every ounce of himself from the moment he was officially announced on June 10.
Departing Marinos mid-season and jumping straight into the Celtic job just over a month before their first match has seen Postecoglou virtually cram two seasons into one. The Celtic rebuild and title tilt was a mass task in itself, as he 19 players, amid an exodus of stars.
Inclusive of Marinos, Postecoglou has coached 84 games in those 16 months – 60 at Celtic and 24 with Marinos games in all competitions.
Beyond the sheer volume of games, there’s the pressure attached to managing one of the biggest clubs in the world.
People can argue about the quality of Scottish football, but the pressure and prestige attached to the job has not changed. Whether it’s as strong as yesteryear is irrelevant in the eyes of die-hard Celtic fans – and there are a few. To them, their club is all that matters.
However, naysayers should consider that two Scottish clubs will potentially play in the Champions League next season and Rangers are playing in the Europa League final this week. That suggests it’s in a very strong place.
For Celtic employees, from the executive down, it’s 24/7. Even the slogan plastered on the front of the Celtic club shop reads: “You don’t play for Celtic. You live for Celtic.”
The sheer enormity of the task and responsibility attached to wearing that badge has been too great, and gobbled up players and managers before and will do so in the future.
The pressure on Postecoglou was greater considering his Aussie passport and his lack of Euro bona fides. It also meant a heap of ignorant and even disrespectful questions and comments came his way.
While Postecoglou had built a glorious trophy-laden CV over 25 years, and felt that his Aussie apprenticeship prepared him perfectly for a crack at Europe, one thing that he couldn’t prepare for was the size and profile attached to the club.
Considering the volume of media commitments and the constant spotlight, there are plenty of opportunities for verbal own goals, which in a city with such an emotionally-charged rivalry can be catastrophic.
Postecoglou has handled it with aplomb, cautiously and intelligently negotiated the potential landmines.
Profile is a double-edged sword, and his stunning debut season has propelled him to Celtic superstardom.
It’s a far cry from 14 years ago when he was unemployable in Australia, and even in Japan, where he led Marinos to a famous title, he was recognised but the culture demands fans keep a distance.
In Glasgow, the contrast couldn’t be starker. Everyone wants a piece of Postecoglou – he must keep his outings to a minimum, has his haircut at home and fans have taken advantage of motorway traffic to get out of cars and take selfies with him.
When Postecoglou delivered his post-game address on the pitch after claiming the title, you could hear a pin drop among the 60,000 crowd. It was the first time the silence had fallen upon the stadium on a raucous afternoon, as jubilant Celtic fans partied and sung their lungs out.
Postecoglou assumed the role of MC, and the crowd lapped it up, as did he. But, his last point was classic Ange, intimating that the focus was already on putting the foot down next season.
“People focus on the financial rewards you get for the group stage, but what is just as important to me is you can put in a pre-season program with certainty and the players can get some decent time off, which they’re going to need after our season,” Postecoglou said.
“We can look at our recruitment and know that we are in the Champions League group stage, rather than having to wait and see how we get on through the qualifiers and then try and identify the players to bring in.
“We didn’t need an extra incentive to win the title this season, but it’s given us a great opportunity to accelerate our rebuilding of this team.”
Celtic has been in pole position for over a month and virtually wrapped it up a fortnight ago when they held off Rangers at home.
That should not take away from the size of the Postecoglou project and the speed in which it bore fruit.
It is remarkable from the point of view that Rangers, if anything, are stronger than last season.
Some good judges believe that Rangers’ first XI is stronger than Celtic’s. However Postecoglou, through his tactics, attacking mindset, resilience and depth, created the momentum to overtake Rangers when it counted. But that took an almighty effort and turbo-charged rebuild, where he pushed the players and asked a lot of them. They too will enjoy their break.
Most of Postecoglou’s signings have not hit their straps, as they didn’t do pre-season and/or have been injured. Some, including late sub in the 6-0 romp of Motherwell, Yosuke ideguchi, have barely been sighted due to injury.
With a full pre-season and reinforcements coming in with the aid of the GBP20 million Champions League bounty, this side will only improve.
Importantly, Postecoglou can plan with certainty, knowing his team has secured its Champions League group stage berth. No qualifiers. That will mean a well-planned, high-octane pre-season, where he will aim to have his team racing out of the blocks.
The first few months of the season take on heightened importance, with all leagues pausing for Qatar 2022, and the Champions League group stage games set to be completed before the World Cup.
Postecoglou’s vision is akin to his Socceroos tenure, when he went into Brazil 2014 with an eye on the 2015 Asian Cup.
January signings Daizen Maeda, Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Matt O’Riley were all signed with an eye on next season, although all – injured Ideguchi aside – contributed to the barnstorming finish where they overtook Rangers, including the dominant 3-0 win at Celtic Park, when Hatate and Tom Rogic starred.
“The first half of the season we struggled in not having a strong enough squad. We had injuries and overburdened players, who just got through.
“That was the reason for bolstering the squad in January. It wasn’t just for the second half of this year. We knew the Japanese season was finished, so it was the perfect time to bring them in. We probably didn’t need to bring in so many but the three I identified would also give us a stronger squad for next year.
“We won’t bring as many players in. It will be more targetted. We want to make sure the squad is stronger, more robust and increase the quality of our starting players.
“I am always trying to think a step ahead.”
In the meantime, Postecoglou will take a break and soak up the Greek Island sun.
By the time he returns in late June, he’ll be refreshed, tanned, and ready to embark on another title tilt and give the Champions League one almighty crack.
Bring on season 2022-23.